Bullshit on the Stump: The Highs and Lows of US Politics

Note: The Fog of Policy – which will go on summer break after today – typically shies away from adult language; but from time to time it helps to dispense with formalities and, for the sake of clarity, call a spade a spade. Following the example of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, today’s post will focus on the high art of American political bullshit.

On Bullshit Shot

In his short and illuminating 1986 essay On Bullshit, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt separates bullshit from run-of-the-mill cant and deception. Frankfurt distinguishes between lies – where the speaker knows that what he is saying is untrue – from bullshit – where the speaker does not care whether what he is saying is true or not.

Bullshit, at heart, is defined by a profound disinterest in the truth, rather than an affirmative assertion of untruth. In broad strokes, it takes two forms.

In the first instance, the speaker pretends to know things that he cannot possibly know, and politics seems tailor-made to give us this kind of bullshit:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.

For example, politicians will routinely claim that their policies will grow the labor market by so many jobs or expand the economy by some precise amount. (In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney promised to get unemployment below 6%. He wasn’t elected and his policies were not implemented; yet unemployment has, in fact, dropped to 5.5%.)

Voters, who would very much appreciate such outcomes, are ready to believe that politicians can deliver on their promises. Politicians, who often earnestly support the policies they champion, really do believe that their approach is worth pursuing.

But when politicians tell you, with conviction and certainty in their voices, that they will usher in $2 per gallon gasoline prices, they’re almost always bullshitting. They don’t know that, and they know they don’t know that – and they don’t care.

A standout example of this sort of chicanery was Hillary Clinton’s support in 2008 for a suspension in the $0.18 per gallon federal gas tax – which she championed as relief for cash-strapped consumers. Even though the bottom-line difference to consumers would be minuscule (about $30 per driver over the life of the program), the aggregate effect on funds available for infrastructure maintenance would be significant. It was a non-solution to a real problem, and Mrs. Clinton almost certainly knew that. She also clearly didn’t care.

Bravely, her then-rival for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama, refused to go along with the idea, even as the plan received support from the presumptive and eventual GOP nominee, John McCain.

Of course, one does not long survive in politics without bullshit, and in the fight over his signature piece of legislation, President Obama had the opportunity to get his hands dirty.

In the brouhaha surrounding the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama Administration repeatedly made the claim that the new law would not push people out of their current health insurance plans. The claim appeared a number of times and in various forms, each time lending itself to a more or less charitable reading. But the claim was widely interpreted as meaning that people would not have to change their health plans if they didn’t want to.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the case. And more to the point, it couldn’t have possibly been the case: you cannot change something as complicated at the American health insurance landscape while promising people that their interface with that landscape will remain unchanged. Someone as sophisticated as President Obama certainly knew that, but in the end he calculated that selling his program to the American people would benefit more from bullshit than sober analysis.

Another type of bullshit occurs when a politician says things, not because she wants us to believe them, but rather because she wants us to believe that she believes them. This type of bullshit is not about manipulating what people think about the world, but rather it’s about manipulating what people think about the speaker.

This is where politicians really come into their own. Politicians will almost invariably package themselves as relatable people with deep roots in America’s middle class. It’s always bullshit: being in a position to run for President is an extraordinary accomplishment. The people who find themselves in such a position are, by definition, extraordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives. But in trying to appeal to voters, politicians will go to great lengths to disguise that fact.

Gov. Scott Walker, for example, likes to highlight his frugality by telling voters how he uses coupons to shop at Kohl’s. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t, but the underlying motivation of retelling the story as often as he does is obviously to bullshit voters into believing that his daily life and concerns mirror theirs. I somehow doubt it.

Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton tried to sell voters on the idea that she and Bill Clinton were broke after they left the White House. In the strictest sense, Hillary might have been making a factually accurate statement. But in every way that matters, she was clearly playing fast and loose with the truth.

Another favorite tactic for politicians is to loudly proclaim the importance of ‘family values’ – even as they often transgress against those same values in their own lives. In fairness, we should admit that it is perhaps human weakness (or simple hypocrisy) which leads a man with a long track record of divorce and infidelity to oppose same-sex marriage because it violates the sanctity of marriage. Perhaps. But we should at least ask whether such man believes his claims at all, or even cares whether he believes them. We should at least wonder whether he’s not just saying whatever he thinks is most politically expedient.

In short, we should ask whether or not he’s full of bullshit.

Bullshit observed in nature. (c) MikeMurphy via Wikimedia Commons.

Bullshit observed in nature. (c) MikeMurphy via Wikimedia Commons.

(Everyone should remember the words of Marcus Aurelius, who praised his adoptive father for “respect[ing] tradition without needing to constantly congratulate himself for safeguarding our traditional values.”)

Bobby Jindal – the governor of Louisiana and a hopeful candidate for President – is a man with an impressive resume. He attended an Ivy League university and graduated with honors. He then went on to gain admission to both Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School. Instead, he attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. At 24, he was appointed Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Next to Ted Cruz, he’s probably the smartest man running in the Republican field.

Yet all that brainpower didn’t stop him from claiming, in the absence of evidence, that there are parts of London where non-Muslims don’t dare venture; or from supporting a bill that allows the teaching of creationism in public schools; or from authoring a remarkably stupid op-ed arguing that conservatives and business leaders need to form a coalition to protect business and cultural interests from radical liberals.

Does the brainy Jindal really hold such intellectually deficient positions? That’s hard for me to say. Does Ted Cruz really mean it when he says he “salute[s] Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration”? Is that an endorsement of Trump’s positions, or simply an effort to position himself to pick up Trump’s supporters when the latter inevitably exits the field? I don’t know, but I smell bullshit.

Perhaps the best example of the bullshit chrysalis that surrounds politicos is the fact that they hardly ever admit to being wrong on something or to changing their minds. They will sell themselves as whatever they think today’s electorate will buy, and they will tell you that that is what they have always been.

It is for this reason that elections are typically contested on an ethereal plane with only the most tenuous of tethers to the world of facts. Listen to the conversation this political season, and you’ll hear candidates promise you the moon. They can’t deliver, and they don’t care.

Against this charge, every candidate and his defenders marshal the same defense: yes, there is a lot of artifice in politics, but there are also germs of truth. Perhaps – but those germs won’t grow in bullshit.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

Want to help The Fog of Policy grow? Then take a minute and share this piece! Or let me know what you think in the comments section.

Have a question or suggestion for a new piece? Submit it through the Feedback form – and don’t forget to subscribe on the homepage to get posts and features automatically sent to your inbox.

Leave a Reply